Contra Costa's prosecutors should step back from their blustery strike threat. Everyone recognizes they're overworked and badly understaffed.

Both sides -- county supervisors and negotiators for the deputy district attorneys -- also stipulate that their compensation places them at the bottom of the prosecutor pack in the region.

That's not the point. The issue is whether the county can afford to pay more and whether deputy DAs are being asked to absorb an unfair share of the pain.

The answer to both, according to an independent fact-finder, is no.

Mediator Barry Winograd concluded in June that the prosecutors should accept the county's offer -- that it was consistent with what was being offered to most other county workers.

Ironically, while the prosecutors' negotiators are hinting at a strike, a majority of their members had previously voted to accept the county's offer. But their internal rules require two-thirds approval to ratify the deal. In other words, a minority of members can block any deal. That's what happened in March.

The prosecutors' association next demanded the fact-finding process under a new state law that the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown approved last year after intense lobbying by labor groups. The idea was to slow down a local government's ability to unilaterally impose one-year contracts when bargaining failed.


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But after demanding such an inquiry, the prosecutors didn't like the outcome and chose to ignore it. So, county supervisors Tuesday voted 4-1 to impose a contract. Candace Andersen, whom prosecutors backed in her recent election, dissented. It was the first contract imposition in union-friendly Contra Costa in about three decades.

On average, the county pays about $215,000 a year in salary and benefits to employ a prosecutor. Under the deal a minority of prosecutors blocked in March, the county would have trimmed its costs by about 4.4 percent. That's comparable to the cuts most other county bargaining groups have agreed to.

The contract imposed Tuesday has slightly greater county savings. That's because the county cannot unilaterally impose reduced pension benefits for new hires that was part of the original deal. So it withheld a longevity pay sweetener that was also in the earlier deal.

In other words, the deputies would have been better off under the deal they were offered than under the imposed contract. The March offer is still an option.

Bargaining has become more complicated since then because the county reached a slightly less-stringent deal with probation officers and gave nurses at county hospital a new contract with salary increases.

County officials justify the deal with probation officers by saying they are paid less so they shouldn't absorb as large a percentage of cuts. The argument doesn't make a lot of sense when one looks at the high cost of their pension benefits, but we'll save that discussion for another day.

As for the nurses, the county found itself in a horrible bargaining position. If the nurses were to strike, the county would have had to bring in costly replacement workers to keep county hospital open.

The county was also installing a new computer system, and nurses were threatening to walk out just as the training was to start. A delay there would have endangered funding for the system.

Finally, the county must compete with neighboring private hospitals for nurses. It's a more competitive labor market than the one for prosecutors. It's unfortunate for the county, but it's the reality.

Striking bad deals with probation officers and nurses does not justify doing the same with the prosecutors. The fact remains that most county workers have accepted cuts of roughly the same percentage the deputy district attorneys were asked to take.

It's unfortunate the county cannot afford to pay them more. Some prosecutors will leave for better compensation elsewhere. Everyone agrees that they work very hard and that they make a critical contribution.

But county supervisors must live within a budget. Indeed, if there were more money, it would be better spent hiring more prosecutors than paying the current ones more.

These are tough times. The decisions are not easy. But county supervisors made the right call.

Daniel Borenstein is a staff columnist and editorial writer. Reach him at 925-943-8248 or dborenstein@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/borensteindan.

Online extra
Read the fact-finder's report at: http://64.166.146.155/docs/2012/BOS/20120731_227/11870_Factfinding%20without%20Invoice.pdf.